Watch What You Plant

By: Elliot Ambrose, Georgia DNR Public Affairs Intern

The war on Georgia’s invasive species: Part II

Growing native in Georgia

With their variety of colors, shapes and textures, exotic plants have taken root in the yards, and hearts, of many Georgia gardeners. Unfortunately, not all exotics stop there.

Those that escape cultivation and spread rapidly into the surrounding environment can cause devastating and long-lasting damage. Displacing native species and destroying the critical habitat they need, exotic invasive plants are one of the biggest threats to our natural heritage.

What can you do? Grow native! Help reestablish native plant populations in your area and stop the introduction of potentially harmful exotics by choosing native species for your lawn and garden.

The invasive Chinese Tallow  (by Rebekah Wallace, UGA)
The invasive Chinese Tallow (by Rebekah Wallace, UGA/bugwood.org)

Many of Georgia’s most destructive invasive plants, such as Chinese tallow and kudzu, started as exotic imports for use in landscaping and gardening. Not all non-native or exotic plants are invasive, of course. Many, like the crape myrtle, are easily controlled and have existed in the state for centuries without issue.

But the effect of exotics on the natural environment is not always readily apparent or easily predicted, according to Dr. Mincy Moffett, a DNR botanist and Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council board member.

“You never really know how an exotic plant is going to behave, so you’re taking a risk when you introduce them,” Moffett said. “Some never become a problem, while others turn out to be real bad actors.”

Also, past performance is not a reliable indicator of future behavior.

Chinese privet is one example. Introduced in the 1800s, this Asian exotic was widely used as an ornamental hedge until the early 20th century when, for reasons still not clear, it began expanding exponentially. Today, Chinese privet chokes bottomland forest habitat throughout Georgia and is a high priority for invasive species management. (Chinese privet even forms the famous hedges inside UGA’s Sanford Stadium, although some insist the plants are English privet.)

“It’s a lesson that we all need to remember because it means that anything could potentially become a problem at any time,” Moffett said. “Really, playing it safe would mean never planting anything but a native.”

Curbing exotic plant use statewide is a lofty goal, but growing native is something all can do. Fortunately, there are many attractive and unique native plants to choose from, and many benefits to using them.

Benefits of growing native

In addition to reducing the presence of invasive plants on your property and restoring the diversity of plant life in your area, there are a number of added benefits to gardening with native species.

Native vegetation is a great source of cover and food for wildlife and the right combination of plants can invite an assortment of garden visitors. For example, native perennials like the purple coneflower attract a range of pollinators, including beautiful monarch butterflies. Songbirds feed on the nuts of native trees and the caterpillars that live in their branches, while Georgia’s only native hummer species, the ruby-throated hummingbird, loves the nectar of indigenous vines like trumpet creeper.

Because they are more suited to the local climate, water and soil conditions, native plants are generally low maintenance and, once established, require less water and fertilizer than exotics. Native plants also have a natural resistance to pests and require less pesticide use. Furthermore, native plants are regionally adapted to episodes of extreme local weather like drought and deep freezes, conditions that often kill more delicate exotics.

None of these benefits come at the cost of beauty or variety. From trees and shrubs to grasses and wildflowers, there is a native alternative to rival even the most exquisite exotic. And by growing native you can feel good knowing that your choices are helping make a difference and not contributing to the spread of exotic invasive plants.

A landscape crafted to reflect the surrounding natural beauty, rather than stand out from it, can be a lovely addition to your property as well as a rewarding achievement and testament to your commitment to preserve Georgia’s environmental health.

While deciding what to plant and keep on your property is a personal choice, Georgia’s natural heritage and our role in protecting it is a shared responsibility, and everyone has a part to play.

History and experience have shown that introducing exotic species can have catastrophic results and that continued use of exotics may be, literally, planting the seeds for significant problems in the future.

So consider making some room in your own lawn or garden for the best and most beautiful plants Georgia has to offer, and choose to grow native. It’s a small action that can have a big impact in preserving Georgia’s natural resources, now and for future generations to come.

Invasive plant regulation

Nationwide, the sale and interstate transport of certain invasive plants is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. This agency evaluates the potential threat of plant species and proposes federal regulations for plants considered a significant risk.

Among the species on the Federal Noxious Weed List is cogongrass, an exotic invasive that has been the focus of rigorous control efforts in Georgia. Most states also have their own noxious weed lists that prohibit or restrict invasive plant use and help guide policies on the regional or county level.

Although many agencies and groups have compiled listings of high-priority invasive plants in Georgia, there is no state noxious weed list imposing regulations on these species. While such regulation can be controversial, a state noxious weed list could be a valuable asset in Georgia’s fight to control the spread of dangerous invasive plants.

Native alternatives and where to find them

The following are a few native alternatives to some of the most popular and widely used exotic plant species.

Invasive - Tree of Heaven (by Chuck Bargeron, UGA)
Invasive Tree of Heaven (by Chuck Bargeron, UGA/bugwood.org)

Instead of: Tree-of-heaven and mimosa/silk tree

Plant:

Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) – Although smaller and not as showy as its northern form (Acer saccharum), this fast-growing maple produces flower clusters in spring and yellow-orange foliage in the fall, adding color to any landscape.

American holly (Ilex opaca) – Not just for Christmas, this ornamental tree keeps its unique foliage year-round and attracts a variety of birds with its red, berry-like fruit.

Instead of: Japanese privet, Chinese privet or autumn olive

Plant:

Native - Sweetshrub at the Alcovy River (by Alan Cressler)
Sweetshrub at the Alcovy River (by Alan Cressler)

Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) –This aptly named shrub produces beautiful maroon flowers that give off a sweet, fruity fragrance.

Common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) – Attractive in all seasons, this native shrub really comes to life in fall and winter when it displays fragrant yellow flowers and yellowish-orange foliage.

Instead of: English ivy, Japanese climbing fern and Chinese wisteria

Plant:

American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens and W. macrostachya) – Less aggressive than Asian species, this high-climber vine produces drooping bunches of aromatic flowers in shades of blue and purple.

American Wisteria (photo by Alan Cressler)
American Wisteria (photo by Alan Cressler)

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) – Suitable as a climbing vine or groundcover, this native exhibits brilliantly colored fall foliage and does not damage buildings or homes like other climbing vines.

For more native plant recommendations, the Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council provides a comprehensive list of alternatives.

Where to find native plants

As awareness of native landscaping has grown, so has the availability of native plants. Several nurseries offer native plants in Georgia, and numerous retailers online sell live plants and seeds. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, provides a national directory of native plant and seed suppliers, landscape professionals, and environmental consultants.

More resources

USDA guides for the identification and management of invasive species in southern forests.

A guide to native landscaping in the coastal region from Coastal Wildscapes and the Georgia Native Plant Society.

A guide to native plants for Georgia gardens by the UGA extension.

(This is the second post in a multi-part series on invasive species in Georgia. Up next: controlling invaders at all cost. Also read part 1: We have seen the enemy …)

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One thought on “Watch What You Plant

  1. Pingback: Carolina Allspice | Find Me A Cure

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